The following piece originally appeared as an entry in Popdose’s Most Disturbing Halloween EVER! series.
“Everyday People” entered the Billboard Top 40 on January 4, 1969. Six weeks later it was the number-one song in the country, holding onto the top spot for an entire month. The lead single from Sly & the Family Stone’s upcoming album Stand!, it espoused “different strokes for different folks,” with the group’s leader, Sly Stone, assuring listeners that “I am no better and neither are you / We are the same whatever we do.”
Later that year the “psychedelic soul” band from San Francisco — featuring black, white, male, and female members — played the Woodstock festival, taking the stage at three in the morning on August 17 with inspirational anthems like “You Can Make It If You Try” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” which quickly moved the predawn crowd out of their sleeping bags and onto their feet.
In hindsight, it was as high as Sly & the Family Stone would go.
On January 10, 1970, their first single of the new decade, the double-A-sided “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “Everybody Is a Star,” landed in the Top 40, and within a few weeks had become the band’s second chart topper.
Ushering in the era of bottom-heavy ’70s funk dominated by bands like Kool & the Gang, Ohio Players, and Earth, Wind & Fire, “Thank You” featured a harder sound than the Family Stone’s previous hits, with Larry Graham’s percussive thump-and-pluck bass dominating the track alongside Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini’s trumpet-and-sax combo. Sly’s lyrics weren’t exactly relegated to the background, but expectations of good-time vibes from the group that recorded “Dance to the Music” tended to obscure lines like “Flamin’ eyes of people fear burnin’ into you” and “Dyin’ young is hard to take / Sellin’ out is harder.”
The lyrics that typically stand out on first listen are the titles of previous Family Stone hits incorporated into the third verse: “Dance to the music all night long / Everyday people sing a simple song.” It comes across as playful — a clever summation of the Family Stone’s triumphs in the decade just ended.
After “Thank You” and the more conventionally arranged “Everybody Is a Star,” no new material was heard from Sly & the Family Stone for almost two years. During that time Sly did produce two singles for his little sister Vet’s vocal trio — appropriately named Little Sister — the second one a cover of “Somebody’s Watching You,” originally heard on Stand!
The Family Stone’s midtempo pop-soul version is sung with sweetness and warmth, pushing the melody into nursery-rhyme territory, a la “Everyday People.” Little Sister’s take, from 1971, is much more spare, the hushed vocals placed higher in the mix so as to foreground the paranoid lyrics:
Ever stop to think about a downfall
Happens at the end of every line
Just when you think you pulled a fast one
Happens to the foolish all the time.
The final verse is even more ominous:
The nicer the nice, the higher the price
And that’s what you pay for what you need
The higher the price, the nicer the nice
Jealous people like to see you bleed.
Little Sister’s cover of “Somebody’s Watching You” was reportedly the first instance of a drum machine being used in place of a human drummer on a mainstream record. The device’s unwavering rhythm makes the downfall mentioned in the lyrics seem like a foregone conclusion.
In November of ’71, Sly & the Family Stone finally broke their silence of almost two years when “Family Affair,” the lead single off their fifth album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, hit the airwaves. But if “Thank You” was a bit more forceful than what fans were used to, “Family Affair” was a complete 180. The accompanying album caused confusion as well, especially from fans expecting some new rays of sunshine soul. (In contemporary terms, imagine if Radiohead had skipped OK Computer and followed up 1995’s The Bends with 2000’s Kid A.)
One of the most unsettling number-one hits of all time, “Family Affair” speaks of dysfunction — “You can’t leave, ’cause your heart is there / But you can’t stay, ’cause you been somewhere else!” — while behind the scenes there was already plenty of that to go around: singer and keyboardist Rose Stone, Sly’s sister, was the only member of the Family Stone who appeared on the track aside from Sly, singing the chorus through cupped hands. The distinctive Rhodes piano was played by Sly’s old friend Billy Preston, the guitar was provided by Bobby Womack, and the beat was programmed into a Rhythm King drum machine by Sly.
The Family Stone may have gotten the sleepy Woodstock crowd to dance to the music at 3 AM, but on “Family Affair” Sly sounds like most people feel if they happen to be awake at that time of night. It’s a mesmerizing performance — bone-tired yet brutally honest — that’s mostly confined to Sly’s lower register, but he lets loose two phlegmy falsetto screams in the final stretch that ring in your ears long after the song has ended. (His elastic voice was presumably a major influence on Prince’s style.)
Riot includes this peculiar credit: “All songs written, arranged and produced by Sylvester Stewart and Sly Stone.” (Previous albums had credited Sylvester with the songs, Sly with the production.) Sylvester was the sensitive churchgoing boy who’d grown up singing in a gospel group, the Stewart Four, with his younger siblings — Rose, Freddie, and Vet (née Vaetta) — but as he told talk-show host Mike Douglas in 1974, a fifth-grade teacher misspelled the first syllable of his name on a blackboard. The nickname “Sly” stayed with him. “I think I started even acting like it after that,” he said.
Sly Stewart begat Sly Stone when he was hired to spin R&B records at San Francisco’s KSOL in October of ’64. The 21-year-old DJ stayed at the R&B station through June of ’67, then did a short stint at KDIA in Oakland that fall, after which the Family Stone became his top priority.
Sylvester was the student who absorbed not only the new psychedelic sounds he was hearing in the Bay Area — including the Great Society, Grace Slick’s first band — but also the sounds he was broadcasting on the radio: Bob Dylan, Motown, the Beatles, and Stax-Volt soul. (“I’d play Dylan, Hendrix, James Brown back to back, so I didn’t get stuck in any one groove,” he once said.) Sly, however, was the showman, whose outsized personality could sell the songs Sylvester was composing in his head by combining them with the visual hook of an integrated band for integrated times.
But as drugs like cocaine and PCP (and fame, as hoary as that cliche may be) entered Sly’s world in 1970, his identity, much like the sonic quality of Riot, began to muddy. The student was still there, but the showman felt the need to bring him onstage for a bow, hence Riot‘s third cut, “Poet,” a precursor of hip-hop braggin’ and boastin’ (“My only weapon is my pen / And the frame of mind I’m in”). Sylvester and Sly were the Jekyll and Hyde of R&B in the ’70s, and the struggle between the two sides is documented on “Family Affair.”
“One child grows up to be somebody that just loves to learn / And another child grows up to be somebody you’d just love to burn,” sings Sly, putting extra emphasis on the last six words. (He said in an interview on KCRW in May that the song came from “a daydream,” and with songwriting in general, “I don’t necessarily have to have experienced it, but I can see it. I can feel it.”) On the subject of Sylvester and Sly’s uneasy marriage, he croaks, “Newlywed a year ago / But you’re still checking each other out / Nobody wants to blow, nobody wants to be left out.” Each side needed the other to succeed. Both sides were stuck.
Sly was in and out of drug rehab facilities in the ’80s, one of which was the Lee Mental Health Clinic in Fort Myers, Florida. In 1985 Dr. Richard Sapp told Spin magazine, “We didn’t accept ‘Sly’ in our therapy sessions. Sylvester can control Sly … Once he realized that we were serious, he became Sylvester.” Years later his father, K.C. Stewart, was quoted in Mojo magazine as saying, “You can usually tell what he’s been doing from the way he is on the phone. Mama knows the moment he says ‘Hello’ if she’s talking to Sly or Sylvester. If he tries to tell a ten-minute story in ten seconds, then it’s been a Sly Stone kinda day.”
In addition to his own internal pressure at the turn of the decade, the Oakland-based Black Panthers were applying external pressure to Sly, hoping for a militant musical endorsement, while white hippies thought they’d found their crossover superstar at Woodstock. Sly seemed to answer both suitors at once in “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” with the lyric “Thank you for the party / But I could never stay.”
Universal acceptance can be a scary thing. Sly sang about being the “Underdog” on the very first track of the Family Stone’s very first album, 1967’s A Whole New Thing, but just two years later his status had changed completely. If everyone suddenly embraces you, there can be a creeping suspicion that everyone thinks they suddenly own a piece of you, that they can control you. Sly was being polite in the lyrics of “Thank You,” but with There’s a Riot Goin’ On, he got right to the point: You know nothing about me or my music, and here’s the proof.
“Sly filled an important social void, bridging blacks and whites,” said the Family Stone’s original manager, David Kapralik, in People magazine in 1996. Sly, the radio broadcaster who wanted to reach the widest audience possible, put it more simply years earlier: “What I write is people’s music. I want everybody, even the dummies, to understand what I’m saying. That way they won’t be dummies anymore.”
He addressed the ugly reality of racism in his music only occasionally, notably in songs like 1969’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” whose title is answered by the next line in the chorus: “Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” “The sense here is one of impasse,” wrote music journalist Barney Hoskyns in an essay for the 2007 reissue of Stand! “Following the race riots of 1967 and 1968, and then … the shocking assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, the races in America began to move apart, increasingly distrustful of each other.”
In the documentary Jimi & Sly: The Skin I’m In, which aired on Showtime in 2000, Rose Stone says of her big brother, “When we were little kids and we would go from church to church and sing, if people didn’t stand and applaud and really feel the spirit of what he was singing, he’d cry afterward.” Much has been written about There’s a Riot Goin’ On being Sly’s declaration of political disillusionment, but he never addressed Vietnam in his songs, or Kent State, or MLK or RFK or LBJ. In fact, when asked by Vanity Fair writer David Kamp in 2007 whether or not Riot was a political statement, he answered, “Well, yeah, probably. But I didn’t mean it to be.”
Sly is sly, after all. And good music is good music, regardless of its “message” or whoever made it. To Sly, what mattered was the product of people’s talent and creativity, not the color of their skin.
His disillusionment may have come from witnessing free-form radio, which he’d helped popularize in the Bay Area in the mid-’60s, fading away on the FM dial. The freedom he’d enjoyed in others’ music and expressed through his own, beginning with the uplifting gospel numbers he performed as a child, was no longer being celebrated. By the end of 1970 the Beatles had broken up, and Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Hendrix were all dead. The colors on the musical spectrum were separating once again. On Riot Sly responded in kind by delving deeper into funk and the roots of African-American music.
As pressure mounted, he showed symptoms of a bleeding ulcer, though the ulcer itself never developed. However, “one of the clinical ways to ease the pain is cocaine,” Kapralik told Rolling Stone in 1971. Perhaps he felt that if he’d failed to take his listeners higher, the only way to numb himself from bitter disappointment was to get higher.
“Life was drugs, and it was music,” said Sly’s former personal assistant, Stephani Swanigan Owens, in Joel Selvin’s 1998 book Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History. “They would spend so many hours — thirty-six to forty-eight hours — in a stretch at the Record Plant, wearing out the engineers. But they were doing drugs, too.”
Uppers like cocaine and amphetamines gave Sly and company the stamina they needed, but on Riot the core performers weren’t the members of the Family Stone. Friends and colleagues like Preston, Womack, and Jim Ford (who wrote “Harry Hippie” for Womack) were the ones recording with Sly well into the night and the next day and the day after that.
Ike Turner, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis also dropped in to jam and see what this character named Sly Stone was all about. The third track on Hancock’s landmark jazz fusion album Head Hunters (1973) is titled “Sly,” and the influence of Riot‘s winding groove can be heard on Davis’s divisive On the Corner (1972). The late jazz legend’s memories of Riot‘s recording sessions, as chronicled in his autobiography, Miles, boiled down to “nothing but girls everywhere and coke, bodyguards with guns, looking all evil. I told him I couldn’t do nothing with him — told Columbia I couldn’t make him record any quicker. We snorted some coke together and that was it.”
Sly was eating up lots of studio time and label money at the Record Plant, as noted by Owens, and he had a Winnebago outfitted with recording equipment in case he felt like recording there as well. But mainly he was recording at his new home in southern California.
In the fall of 1970 Sly moved into a mansion in Bel Air owned by John and Michelle Phillips — the head of the Family Stone was now in the home of the Mamas and the Papas. (The Phillipses had their own share of dysfunction: John’s oldest daughter, actress Mackenzie Phillips, revealed in her 2009 memoir, High on Arrival, that she used cocaine with her father and had a ten-year incestuous relationship with him, starting when she was 19.)
Sly first learned about the house from his friend Terry Melcher, a record producer and A&R man at Columbia Records (the sister label of Epic, which put out Sly’s albums). At the time Melcher wasn’t showing his face much in public: After declining to sign a musician named Charles Manson to a recording contract, Manson came looking for him at the house he was renting in Los Angeles. Melcher and his girlriend, Candice Bergen, had already moved out, though; another successful young couple, film director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate, were now living in the house. Tate was eight and a half months pregnant when Manson and his “family” murdered her and three of her friends on August 9, 1969.
“When we first moved into that house, there were rooms that had some things in them that made us think the house was haunted,” said Owens. “We found a Ouija board in there. We found different pieces of paperwork that made us believe they were into witchcraft.” Sly increased the general level of discomfort by bringing his dog, a violent pit bull terrier named Gun. According to Joel Selvin’s article about Riot in the August 2001 issue of Mojo magazine, Sly also owned a baboon, “but Gun killed the baboon and then fucked it.”
John Phillips had installed a recording studio in the attic, which held great appeal for his new renter. Sly could now record whenever he wanted. And he could keep people waiting as long as he wanted while he waited to be “inspired.” In 1970 he missed 26 out of 80 scheduled concerts, in some cases leaving the rest of the Family Stone in limbo backstage while he got high. Fans grew frustrated, occasionally rioting in the wake of cancellations.
As Errico told Selvin, “On one hand, [Sly] had the capabilities of handling all that attention, fame, big audiences. But on the other hand, there was another part of him that didn’t want it, couldn’t handle it, and wanted to be away from it. This fight always went on, where he wanted to be the biggest, the baddest, best, and then, when he got it, he didn’t want to be it; he was scared of it.”
Sly himself described for KCRW a performance of the Stewart Four’s at the Oakland Civic Auditorium: “Towards the end of the song, people started running down the aisle … I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know that they were just happy, [that] they weren’t just gonna come up and grab me. So I turned around and started running … and I’ve been running ever since.” The next-to-last cut on Riot is “Runnin’ Away,” in which Sly sings, “Running away to get away / Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! / You’re wearing out your shoes / Look at you fooling you!” And just as he sang “Thank you for the party / But I could never stay” a year before Riot‘s release, he’d continue giving hints about his early retirement on future albums, particularly 1973’s Fresh and the single “If You Want Me to Stay” (“Count the days I’m gone … / Because I promise / I’ll be gone for a while”).
As his band became more and more popular, Sly withdrew further into the Sly Stone persona he’d created, though the showman was aggressively transforming into a wannabe pimp, with lots of money, women, drugs, and guns at his disposal. The nicer the nice, the higher the price.
There’s a Riot Goin’ On was the first Family Stone album not to feature the band on the cover, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t feature Sly, either. The flag that’s pictured is red, white, and black, representing “people of all colors,” blood red being the color we all share on the inside. But the symbolism of Sly’s American flag is as inclusive as the album ever gets. Without question it’s his most introspective effort, with the focus in his songwriting shifting from “we” to “me,” and after Riot he was the only band member to get any face time on the cover, which was somewhat appropriate since the band had stopped recording together in the studio by the time of the Riot sessions. The cover of 1976’s Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back (the title was wishful thinking), a Family Stone album in name only, pictured Sly as a one-man band, but he’d already been operating with that attitude in the studio for years.
For Riot, Sly began overdubbing band members’ contributions onto existing tracks, sometimes replacing them with his own instrumentation if he thought he could do a better job matching the sound he heard in his mind. All the late-night overdubbing and erasing on the master tape is what gives Riot its murky fidelity, a stark contrast to the bright, shiny sound of previous Family Stone albums.
But whether or not the eventual aural atmosphere of the album was completely intentional, there’s no denying that the lo-fi audio adds to the listener’s feeling of being in a drug haze, coming down from the 1969 highs of Stand! and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and being submerged in the dark waters of “Family Affair,” the bluesy, menacing “Just Like a Baby,” and the hypnotically overpowering “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa.” The bass is so prominent throughout the album, and the drum-machine beats so relentless, that the keyboards on “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” and the guitar on “Thank You” feel like needles pricking the skin whenever they make an appearance. We may all share the same blood, but on Riot there’s ice in Sly’s veins.
The album kicks off, in fact, with the sound of a throbbing bass guitar, and as music journalist Touré says in the liner notes for Sony’s reissue of the Family Stone’s 1973 album Fresh, “If you hear a nasty bass line, you know funk is coming.” The funk never lets up on Riot, but it’s not dance funk or party funk or even P-Funk. It’s lonely, claustrophobic, 3 AM funk. The album’s opener, “Luv n’ Haight,” like “Family Affair,” is an expression of the internal and external pressure being exerted on Sly. The chorus switches from Sly singing “Feel so good / Don’t want to move / Feel so good inside myself / Don’t need to move” to Little Sister chanting “Feel so good / Feel so good / I want to move / I want to move” over and over again in the last half of the song, with their vocals switching from the left channel to the right on each line, boxing in Sly (and any listener using headphones), who’s seemingly paralyzed by drugs, his two “sides,” or other forces.
Depending on how you feel about There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the midtempo inertia that takes hold over the rest of the album is either monotonous and enervating or a case of Sly brilliantly pushing the boundaries of popular music as if it were a rubber band that could snap at any second. Stephen Paley, a former Epic A&R executive and friend of Sly’s, said Riot “was almost like brinksmanship. He wanted to see how far from commercial he could go and still be commercial.”
“Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” a dramatic reworking of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” is cut from the same cloth as Little Sister’s cover of “Somebody’s Watching You.” On the new version Sly replaces Larry Graham’s signature slap bass with a thudding “bottom” of his own and slows the tempo to a crawl. Though the echoed vocals sound like they’re coming from a part of your brain you’d rather not know about, the lyrics are no longer hiding behind a bouncy dance groove:
Lookin’ at the devil, grinnin’ at his gun
Fingers start shakin’, I begin to run
Bullets start chasin’, I begin to stop
We begin to wrestle, I was on the top
Is Sly the devil, and African rhythms the source of Sylvester’s strength if he hopes to eventually conquer his other self? There’s a Riot Goin’ On features some gospel-derived “call and response,” but not in the way one might expect. The title of the album is a response to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released six months earlier in 1971, and side one’s “Africa Talks to You” receives a grateful “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” on side two. But whereas the name-checking of previous Family Stone hits on the original “Thank You” seemed like clever wordplay, in this context it’s a rejection of all that came before, as if Sly’s mocking anyone who was dumb enough to believe his previous messages of hope, truth, and togetherness:
Dance to the music all night long
Everyday people, sing a simple song
Mama’s so happy, mama starts to cry
Papa’s still singin’, you can make it if you try
If Sly’s intention on Riot was to tear down his music and everything it once represented in order to build it back up again as a new, different beast, then he accomplished what he set out to do. Riot is a hard album to love — its bookends, Stand! and Fresh, are much more accessible — but it’s impossible to forget.
Greil Marcus, who reviewed Riot three times for Creem magazine, wrote in his 1974 book Mystery Train, “With this album, Sly is giving his audience — particularly his white audience — precisely what they don’t want. What they want from Sly is an upper, not a portrait of what lies behind his big freaky black superstar grin. One gets the feeling, listening to this album, that Sly’s disastrous concerts of the past year have not been so much a matter of insulting his audience as attacking it, with real bitterness and hate, because of what its demands on him have forced him to produce. It is an attack on himself as well, for having gone along with those demands.”
Indeed, after the commercial failure of the Family Stone’s debut album, the rhythmically expansive A Whole New Thing (1967), Sly was told he needed to simplify his sound in order to get his songs played on the radio (by DJs who were possibly less open-minded than he was during his broadcasting days). His response was “Dance to the Music,” which became one of the band’s signature songs. He even repeated its chord progression on several songs from the accompanying album of the same name.
“He hated it. He just did it to sell records,” Martini told Selvin. “The whole album was called Dance to the Music, dance to the medley, dance to the shmedley. It was so unhip to us. The beats were glorified Motown beats. We had been doing something different, but these beats weren’t going over. So we did the formula thing. The rest is history and he continued his formula style.” But as Miles Marshall Lewis wrote in his book about Riot for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, “By the introspective, mournful There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sly didn’t give a fuck about people pleasing, which is also largely the album’s tale in a nutshell.”
Ironically, “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” is the only real band performance by the Family Stone that appears on Riot. (Errico said it’s the one track on the album where he can hear his drumming.) It was supposedly recorded in ’69 around the same time as the original “Thank You,” after Sly moved from San Francisco to L.A. That’s when the band began to splinter.
Robinson and Martini moved into the Phillips mansion in the fall of 1970, but the rest of the band kept their homes in the Bay Area. They’d travel to Bel Air to record their parts when requested, but as Sly became more isolated and arrogant, he’d keep them waiting around in the house until he was ready to see them. Errico quit sometime during the Riot sessions, fed up with the drugs and the canceled concerts and the endless waiting, leading Sly, the musical innovator, to employ the Rhythm King drum machine on tracks like “Family Affair,” “Poet,” and “Time.”
Time — which “needs another minute (at least),” according to the song — was another source of pressure for Sly. Epic Records, realizing a new album wasn’t coming anytime soon, released Greatest Hits in time for the Christmas shopping season in 1970, adding “Thank You,” “Everybody Is a Star,” and the band’s other post-Stand! single, “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” to the track listing. (They had hoped those songs would be part of a new album ready for release in early 1970. Sly had other plans.) The quickie compilation was a smash success, putting further pressure on Sly to come up with a new album that could rival or even top it.
In the meantime, everyone would have to wait. He didn’t allow clocks in the Phillipses’ mansion, and when Sly, clearly stoned, ignored Dick Cavett’s attempts to sign off at the end of his own show on June 8, 1971, by imploring him to “Wait a minute, man,” the talk-show host finally had to say “Time marches on!” over the exit music. Sly had already shown up late for the live broadcast, forcing Cavett to kill time on air. (He wasn’t asked back.)
“Take your time / But you’ve got a limit,” Sly sings, the second line possibly a veiled apology to everyone who was fed up with him. The man hadn’t lost his sense of humor — his yodeling on “Spaced Cowboy” offers some comic relief even if the growls he interjects remind you of the somewhat frightening company you’ve chosen to keep — but his jokes were bleaker this time around. Side one of Riot closes with the title track, whose running time on the LP is listed as “0:00.” Time, it appears, has run out. Or did the stopwatch never start? “I did it because I felt there should be no riots,” Sly once said of the nonexistent track. Or maybe the riot in question was always meant as a laugh riot and nothing more, with Sly’s growing audience the butt of the joke — Riot was the band’s only album to reach #1, after all.
However, it’s hard not to wonder if Sly was inspired by the Last Poets, the hip-hop forebears whose spoken-word number “Run, Nigger” was featured on their 1970 self-titled album:
Time is running out on our natural habits
Time is running out on lifeless serpents reigning over a living kingdom
Time is running out of talks, marches, tunes, chants, and all kinds of prayers
Time is running out of time
Sly also indicates that time has run out (on the ideals of the ’60s? on the Family Stone? on music?) when he sings “Timber … all fall down!” in “Africa Talks to You,” a fairly explicit rejection of Stand! Those who still believe in the Summer of Love get a reprimand as well: “Watch out, ’cause the summer gets cold / When today gets too old!” Only the “Brave & Strong” survive.
In Jeff Kaliss’s 2008 book I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone, Sly himself says that record executives weren’t just pressuring him to manage his time properly: “People were coming from all different kinds of record companies. People were talking to different people in the group, and telling me that I didn’t need this person or that person, or telling [the group’s members] how they didn’t need this or that person. They break you up so they can have different concerts every night, and make everybody different stars, with different record sales.” Even so, it’s hard to deny that the main force behind the gradual breakup of Sly & the Family Stone was none other than Sly himself.
On January 9, 1980, a full decade after “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” entered the Top 40, Sly was a guest once again on The Mike Douglas Show. A clip of his appearance, which pops up near the end of The Skin I’m In, shows actress Valerie Harper, Douglas’s cohost for the week, staring slack-jawed at an almost incomprehensible, drugged-out Sly, who sounds like he’s imitating a vocoder as he says, “I’m gonna do one more album real quick, and if it’s not instantly platinum …” He pauses, shakes his head, then sings the words “Bye, y’all, bye, y’all.”
True to his word, Sly recorded only one more album, 1982’s underwhelming Ain’t But the One Way, which was completed by producer Stewart Levine without Sly’s input — he’d gone AWOL after the initial sessions in ’81 and couldn’t be found (or maybe Warner Bros., his label at the time, decided it would cost less to finish the album without his increasingly unreliable talents). He surfaced in time to promote One Way on Late Night With David Letterman, but even the album’s cover had to be created without him: the camouflage hat he’s wearing appears to be the same one from his 1980 Mike Douglas Show appearance.
The most striking song on One Way is “Ha Ha, Hee Hee,” which includes one of the most directly reflective verses in Sly’s discography:
Ha ha, hee hee
Nothing to do
You beat the genius in you
But who cares if you are through
You’ll never miss it
Too bad the person doing the reflecting isn’t Sly — “Ha Ha, Hee Hee” was written by longtime musical associate Pat Rizzo. Sly had already checked out.
“Time is here to stay,” he sang in 1971, on “Runnin’ Away.” But he obviously couldn’t make that promise himself.